Archive for the ‘Irene Pepperberg’ Category

Recently, a number of scientists signed the Cambridge Declaration, stating their conviction that animals have conscious awareness. I was pleased to see among the signatories Irene Pepperberg, a personal hero and the leading expert in parrot intelligence, and I appreciate that so many people were willing to risk accusations of anthropomorphism and sentimentality. But, otherwise, the announcement mainly gave me the satisfaction of other people saying what I have known for years.

I have been convinced since childhood that at least some animals were self-aware to one degree or another. However, at least twice, this fact has hit me with the force of revelation.

The first time was shortly after Trish and I bought Ningauble, a Nanday conure. I was lounging on a futon by the window, and he was on my chest. As the sky darkened outside, Ning began to get agitated, indicating the direction of his cage with his whole body and making anxious noises.

I knew perfectly well that he wanted to be carried over to the cage, but I didn’t feel like moving. If he really wanted, he could fly there.

But after a few minutes of expressing his desire, Ning quietened. His head began to move, first to look at my toes and the end of the futon, then down to the floor and over to a chair beside his cage. He repeated the same eye movements several times, then marched along the path I have described, ending by climbing to the top of his cage and letting out one triumphant shriek.

Ning, I realized as a thin thrill of excitement passed through me, had just planned his route and followed it. He had at least a limited sense of the future, and enough awareness of himself to imagine doing something in the future. Of course he would have had an easier time if he had flown, but parrots’ intelligence rarely exceeds that of a three or four year old human, and he had all of a toddler’s obsessive tendencies.

This was not a random incident, either. Over the decades of living with parrots, I have seen Ning and all the other birds that have been through our house making simple plans and coming to a decision more times than I remember.

I particularly remember when each bird came to a decision and reached out to preen a human for the first time. Not only was it a sign of affection, but it has always been preceded by a moment of deliberation, as though the bird was deciding whether to extend trust. It has never been as unexpected as that moment of watching Ning, but the repetition showed that his planning was more everyday than something unusual.

The second moment was in early Spring. Trish and I were at Centennial Park on Burnaby Mountain when we noticed two ravens picking at the garbage bins outside the restaurant. We immediately observed that only one raven foraged at any given time; the other would perch, a little higher, shifting slightly and looking all around.

Over about half an hour, we worked our way cautiously closer. We were about ten meters away when a restaurant worker opened the door and tossed a big black bag of garbage into the bin before turning on his heels and disappearing inside again.

The ravens took the air. One landed on the grass about five meters of us. Abruptly, it realized how close we were, and looked up.

At once, I had a sense of being evaluated. My perception was not just based on the raven’s obvious wariness, or the fact that it was cocking its head as though to get a better view of us. It was the fact that I was close enough to look the raven in the eyes.

Once at a wildlife refuge, I had been eyed in the same way by a bald eagle separated from me by a wire cage. Its eyes were so mad that I could tell that its only thought was: Food? Not food?

By contrast, the raven seemed to be doing a more complex evaluation of us. Its wings were poised to take flight, but it seem to be risking a moment or two to be curious about us – even, perhaps, curious about our curiosity. What else the bird might be thinking about us I can only imagine, but what struck me was that looking it in the eye was exactly the same as looking a human in the eye. I was watching another patch of self-awareness watching me.

After about thirty seconds, we started to ease down to our knees, by unspoken agreement hoping that we would be less threatening if we looked smaller. But, as cautious as our movements were, they were enough for the raven to take to the air, flying over us with the single click of its beak. A moment later, both ravens were flying for a high stand of trees on the other side of the park.

Both these incidents took place years ago, but both have formed an important part of my thinking ever since. You might accuse me of an over-active imagination, but all I can say is that you would have had similar perceptions if you had been in the same position.

I hope that our planet will encounter aliens in my lifetime, but, if not, I won’t be too greatly disappointed. So far as I am concerned, my own first contacts with alien intelligences has already happened.

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Today is Ada Lovelace Day, when the tradition is to blog about a woman you admire in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. I can think of dozens of women who are friends or acquaintances I could write about, but the first subject that comes to mind is Irene Pepperberg, who has quietly revolutionized the field of animal cognition with the help of her parrot colleagues Alex, Griffin, and Arthur (Wart).

Pepperberg and Alex especially are known to thousands from their public appearances. However, I sometimes wonder if many people in the audience appreciate that what they are seeing is not just an African Gray who has learned to respond on cues, but living proof that parrots’ intelligence overlaps with the lower edges of human intelligence. With the ability to use concepts such as difference, greater than, and absence, Pepperberg’s test subjects show the general intelligence of a two year old human child, and, in some cases, of a six year old. This discovery is a complete reversal of the traditional beliefs about avian intelligence – after all, “to parrot” is used as a synonym for “to repeat mindlessly.”

Pepperberg’s proof of avian intelligence is exciting, although to parrot owners, she is only repeating what they have long maintained. However, from a scientific viewpoint, Pepperberg’s proof of avian intelligence is the least of her accomplishments.

When Pepperberg began her studies over two decades ago, animal cognition had been thoroughly discredited by a long series of studies teaching chimpanzees and gorillas to communicate – usually through some form of sign language. These studies produced many touching anecdotes about the intelligence of the primates involved, but they were rightly criticized for poor experimental design and researcher bias. By the time Pepperberg began her first studies with Alex, it took a brave person to even approach the entire subject.

However, Pepperberg’s experimental design eventually gave the entire field of animal cognition greater respectability. As detailed in The Alex Studies, Pepperberg took special care to design studies that reduced the chance of unconscious cuing and was able to duplicate results with different researchers and even strangers. Just as importantly, the tasks that parrots have to perform in her studies are more complex than those solved by the earlier chimpanzees and gorillas, which reduced the possibility that her results were due to chance. As the number of her studies increased, gradually no one who read her work could deny her results.

An especially interesting part of Pepperberg’s designs is the Model-Rival learning method she developed. Unlike the usual stimulus-response model that is usually used to teach all sorts of animals rote behavior and responses, the Model-Rival technique begins with the obvious point that learning takes place in a social setting.

In the Model-Rival technique, experiments require two researchers, one of whom takes the traditional role, and one of whom plays a fellow student. The parrots being tested see the fellow student being praised for giving correct answers, and rewarded with food or the right to play with a toy, and, wanting the same attention and rewards, are motivated to learn. This setup not only serves as a serious challenge to classic behaviorism, but may also be of use in the teaching of humans with autism and other learning disabilities, although it is still not extensively studied.

What makes this new found respectability for animal cognition especially interesting is that you only have to look at Pepperberg interacting with her test subjects on video clips to realize that she adores them as much as the soppiest pet owner. When Alex died unexpectedly four years ago, Pepperberg was devastated, and wrote a memoir called Alex and Me that is one of the most moving true stories about an animal ever written. Yet to her credit, Pepperberg has never let her personal feelings undermine the integrity of her scientific work, beyond the obvious fact that she remains deeply committed to her studies. At times, such as when Alex died, the effort to keep the professional and the personal separate must have been almost impossible for her.

As a long time companion to parrots, I find Pepperberg’s work endlessly fascinating. At one point, I seriously weighed expanding on her work in graduate school, and corresponded with her briefly. Studying parrots proved to be a road not taken, but my admiration for her courage, scientific rigor, and passion remains. Far beyond her personal reputation in the media, Pepperberg remains a scientist’s scientist.

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